September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
On the heels of his popular U of T Art Museum show, the Cree artist is unveiling a 12 x 24-ft history painting based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
Kent Monkman’s show at U of T Art Museum earlier this year might have been Toronto’s most important art exhibition of 2017.
Hugely popular, Shame And Prejudice: A Story Of Resilience presented the artists’ work along with a selection of historical paintings and artefacts. A much-needed corrective to the Canada 150 celebrations, the exhibition addressed topics including treaty signings, First Nations’ reserves, residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Whatever the event’s organizers had in mind when planning the sesquicentennial, it probably wasn’t this.
Now Monkman is back with Two Ships. The monumental painting will be presented for two days – September 26 and 27 – as part of 360: Bridges at 6 Degrees Citizen Space, an event that asks what citizenship looks like in the 21st century. This series of discussions at the Art Gallery of Ontario will be livestreamed via four Toronto Public Library branches. Monkman’s talk happens September 26 from 3:30-5 pm, and his piece will be shown in Paris at the Canadian Cultural Centre’s inaugural exhibition in May 2018.
At 12 x 24 ft, this is the largest painting you’ve made. Tell me about it.
This project has been ongoing for almost three years. I wanted to do a very large history painting. The scale has a certain impact. The story I wanted to tell is based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois called the Two Row Wampum Treaty. It was a belt with two purple rows of beads made by the Iroquois to talk about a peace alliance — one for the European vessel and one for the Indigenous vessel and the idea was that they would travel a parallel course and not interfere with one another.
This painting is, of course, that moment of interference. I was inspired by Delacroix’s Christ On The Sea Of Galilee (1854). The parable here was that Christ was asleep and everyone was freaking out because they thought the boat they were in was going to sink. And he was blissfully asleep. In my painting, because of the collision of two cultures, these two vessels are about to collide and Miss Chief, my alter ego, is asleep in the boat. The idea is she is going to wake up and calm the storm.
With your show at U of T’s Art Museum – the room about the residential schools, for instance – I saw that and thought, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Well, that was part of my work as I cycle through Western art history looking for all these gaps – there are huge gaps in the narrative and how the story of North America is told through a very European lens. The other stuff never really made it into the art canon because no one wanted to show it or to expose it. These chapters of Indigenous history – the removal of children, the rate of incarceration, the dispossession of Indigenous people from our land – those never made it into art history. They never made it into our school curriculums. I never set out to be an educator, but when I went into art history, all this stuff just came to the surface and I had to deal with it.
A large part of what I do in the art world is bring people over to my perspective because they are so used to the dominant narrative, which is a whitewash. The incidences where this story does exist in art history is minor. The story North America tells itself about its own history and mythology is flawed.
Do you think there are different rates of progress between Canada and the U.S. on these issues?
[Americans] are at least a generation behind in terms of their awareness. It’s like slipping back in time when you go across the border, depending where you are. That’s my perception. I feel that they are 20, 25 years behind. They have never had a major biennial, like the Sakahàn, of Indigenous work. They don’t have Indigenous curators working in institutions as contemporary curators. We do. And those are major battles that took generations to secure.
There is the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., but that’s an ethnographic museum.
Exactly. That’s still how native people exist in the minds and imaginations of Americans, that they belong in the ethnological wing. Or the Indian Market. It’s either tourist art or they are ethnological specimens. That’s one of the biggest problems holding back Indigenous art from getting into the mainstream.
In Canada, the treaties haven’t been resolved. Is that the reason this history is not being dealt with?
Absolutely. It all goes back to the Indian Act and how the government has established a relationship with Indigenous people. It’s not nation-to-nation; we are wards of the state. We still have cards with numbers that identify us as wards of the state. This goes back to the signing of the treaties and the beginnings of colonial policies that began with incarcerating Indigenous people on reserves and then the institutionalization of Indigenous people through all these different policies.
This is why Indigenous people fill our prisons, because they were foster children. They were taken out with the Sixties Scoop and never had a chance. They never had a relationship with their parents or grandparents and they became institutionalized. They are in our prisons, they are in our foster care system. I could go on and on.
ORIGINALLY COMMISSIONED BY NOW MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 20, 2017 11:42 AM
October 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
Brad Phillips’s preferred meeting place in Vancouver is Reno’s Restaurant at Broadway and Main. “It’s quiet there, and we will be able to talk,” he says.
In the condo-choked gloss of Canada’s most beautiful city, Reno’s offers a step away from the fray. Albeit of a dying breed, Reno’s is the type of diner you can find pretty much anywhere on the continent. In keeping with Phillips’s practice as an artist, it’s situated at a studied remove from current trends.
As Christopher Brayshaw, the Vancouver critic, photographer and co-founder of CSA Space, remarked to me, an artist concerned with appearing hip would never reference John Cheever. But Phillips does (Unknown Painting, 2005), and Cheever provides a revealing clue to understanding the appeal of Phillips’s art. A paragon of WASP experience in the mid-20th-century US and the writer of matchless tales of suburbia, Cheever created fiction whose power lies in intimations of dark undercurrents that run through domestic life. Phillips makes art with a similar effect. He is an artist who takes photographs and makes paintings in a photorealist style (meaning photorealism is less a goal than a by-product of his practice, but more on that later). Like refractions of light through a crystal, his work creates surface tensions with what’s left unsaid.
A Toronto native, Phillips moved to Vancouver in 2002. Like Cheever, whose relationship to pop culture is at this point etiolated at best, Phillips makes work that appears to have little in common with his city’s dominant art practices. Photography is central to his work, but he uses the medium more as a tool than as a mechanism deployed to reflect back on the genres photography creates. This is not to say Phillips’s work lacks an international audience. Represented by the Zurich gallery Groeflin Maag until it closed in 2010, Phillips is an artist arguably appreciated more outside his home country than within. His work has been purchased by some noteworthy collectors: Toronto financier and philanthropist W. Bruce C. Bailey was an early supporter.
It is possible Phillips’s work flies beyond the sightlines of full art-world appreciation in Canada because he makes art in a fashion that is deceptively straightforward. His work is plainspoken in a way that is perhaps more intelligible to the European eye. Phillips hews a vernacular style that constructs a world from the materials at hand, as evidenced by his habit of making paintings about books he has read. One Month of Reading in the Mirror (2007), for instance, presents a stack of books by the writer Patricia Highsmith, their spines cracked from use. Not surprisingly, Phillips, a maker of paintings, gives his literary references a surface form. He presents books to be judged by their covers, so to speak. For an exegesis of their references, viewers will need to look elsewhere—including to other works made by the artist.
The implied deferral of significance between works is the method by which Phillips constructs an edifice of meaning through his practice as a whole, his titling of a work being a pointed element within the piece’s overall composition. This is especially true because his work is always figurative with a focus on the still life (Sentimental Monochrome, 2009) or landscape (Summer of Whatever, 2003), and he has made many paintings in which the signifying element is reduced down to a declarative text. The work Richard Prince (2009), for instance, is a painting of a piece of paper taped to a wall, with a note scribbled on it that reads like a one-liner from Prince’s own Joke series (1986–ongoing): “I wish I’d been able to speak to my father before he died, so I could tell him to go fuck himself one last time.”
The punch line hits its mark, but it gets a laugh that’s more queasy than funny. Richard Prince poses questions about which components of Phillips’s work are autobiographical, as the reference made to the work of the American artist seems less a clever homage than a discreet form of self-revelation. Similar conclusions can be inferred from the text painting Doctor Shopping (2010), which features a tightly framed list of doctors’ names on a black background. The slight angle given to the list of names and the shadowing in the lower right-hand corner subtly position the viewer, and more explicitly the artist (Phillips is tall), as if perusing the list within the lobby of a medical building.
Brayshaw notes that Phillips’s painting technique is “faux naive”; the artist’s photorealist style risks the appearance of simplicity. Close inspection of the canvas reveals great painterly skill, but it is a technique deployed as a means to an end. Phillips avails himself of a dry finish when applying paint to the surface of the canvas. It is an effort made in firm disavowal of the drama of the brushstroke, and also a way for the artist to maintain a fidelity to his pictorial goals.
“There are no happy accidents in the making of my work. I know exactly what the painting is going to be when I start, and that’s how it looks when I finish. In between, nothing happens except execution,” Phillips says. In a similar fashion, he uses titles to banish ambiguity, all the better to summon full engagement with his works’ melancholic ambience.
In making his works, Phillips uses a camera, but he reports that he mostly knows what image he wants before he takes a photo. While he sometimes exhibits the photographs he takes, they mostly become the bases for his paintings. At each step in the process, Phillips excerpts and revises. Every component in his repertoire—whether paintbrush or camera—is only a tool to facilitate his exceptional talent for pictorial composition. One Month of Reading in the Mirror presents what we assume is a gathering of books read, but this record from the artist’s life is angled, as if seen in a mirror. In this way, Phillips constructs a metaphor for self-reflection: we are what we read, so to speak. Another work, Major Depressive Episode (2011), features a chain lock on a door in close-up. The focus on this detail, combined with the work’s title, is almost cinematic in effect, its impact deriving in part from an implied honesty about the artist’s circumstances.
Rather than being painterly or expressive, Phillips makes artworks in the service of narrative. He has a story to tell, and each painting is not so much a chapter as a sentence in its overall composition. A Modern Painters review of the artist’s exhibition at London’s Residence Gallery last year notes that Phillips focuses on details as if “he had zoomed in until his eyes reached the satisfying flatness of the written word.” Literature finds an equivalency in the clarity and flatness of Phillips’s skill with pictorial denotation.
Phillips’s use of a realist style and his dry application of paint give his work a certain verisimilitude. In the words of John Cheever: “Verisimilitude is…a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he’s being told.… Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie.”
Phillips uses visual art as a means of self-portraiture. He authors certain truths about himself through the fiction of painting. In the midst of the current ethos of Internet and reality TV–based self-disclosure, his modus operandi strikes one as almost old-fashioned. As Vancouver writer Kevin Chong notes in conversation, Phillips’s work is self-revelatory, but not in the style of the up-to-the-minute Facebook status update. Making paintings is, after all, hardly the quickest way to get your message across. The same could be said of the presentation of art exhibitions. Art occasions slowness and contemplation, which, as the American artist Kerry Tribe has noted, is a proposition that is a “tiny bit radical” when considered in relation to the value today’s culture places on instantaneous content transmission.
Phillips concedes that in recent years his work has become more directly autobiographical. The Victoria-based fiction writer and critic Lee Henderson notes in an email that Phillips’s earlier work tended to favour what Henderson calls “goth girls [Untitled, 2001] and other midnight imagery: a van parked in a vacant parking lot in front of a black sky [The Last Party, 2002], a silhouette of a forest at night and so on.” The imagery, Henderson says, was in keeping with “a young man’s experience.”
Today, Phillips’s work is both subtler and more polished. Perhaps not coincidentally, he matches advances in his painting skill with the recognition of the value of his life as subject matter. His directness of expression, however elliptical, is a measure of his confidence as a maker of artworks, an assuredness that belies the self-recriminating eye with which he often seems to regard himself.
Phillips admits that this new tendency to make works that refer more directly to his own experience leaves him feeling exposed, though he has found that his audiences recognize the vulnerability he risks and respond accordingly. When he cites influences, other artists hardly figure, although he does count himself a fan of Hans-Peter Feldmann, Joan Mitchell and Edwin Dickinson. Phillips says his influences come more from the traditions of literary fiction. In particular, he says the confessional poetry of writers like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath has had a huge impact on his work. “They made such beautiful prose out of their lives and I realized I could do that in painting,” he tells me.
In keeping with the efflorescence of cultural innovations during the 1950s and 1960s, the confessional poets discovered fresh territory to explore in their work by freeing themselves from the constraints of propriety that had governed poetic expression up to that time. Free verse went hand in hand with the revelation of personal intimacies that were sometimes considered shameful. Phillips likewise uses his work to intimate personal difficulties. They can be as commonplace as insomnia, in Twice a Day or Insomnia (2010), or as bleak as those suggested by Deadbeat Dad (2007), one of a series of works the artist has made of the back of a framed photograph—paintings that pack an emotional punch disproportionate to the bare facts of what they depict.
Phillips’s admiration for the work of the confessional poets is, like much else in his practice, a kind of throwback. Viewed in the light of today’s ultra-confessional culture, this connection suggests that Phillips has found a permission set by their example—permission for art to be the vehicle for the imparting of intimacies that gain a life beyond the moment.
By Rosemary Heather
This text appears in the Fall 2012 Issue of Canadian Art.
More info about Brad Phillips can be found here.
Brad Phillips is represented by the Monte Clark Gallery.
October 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Writing about the paintings of Jan van Eyck, art historian Erwin Panofsky said: “Jan van Eyck’s eye operates as a microscope and as a telescope at the same time…compelling the beholder to oscillate between positions very far from the picture and many positions close to it.” The quote could also describe the paintings of Gary Evans — but with the important distinction that, in Evans’ work, the oscillations are inscribed onto the canvas. Rendering dimension in a picture as shifting planes of paint has always been a predominant feature of Evans’ art. It’s a technique that creates oscillations, or suggested shifts in position for the viewer that, in their way, are just as characteristic of the world the artist inhabits as van Eyck’s more detailed figurative paintings were of his.
Panofsky’s quote points to the broad context Evan’s paintings have always had as their first point of reference: the tradition of landscape painting. For Evans, the Dutch painters of the 17th century have particular significance. Van Eyck provides a reference point as a Nordic master who worked in what is considered to be a naturalistic style – which is to say a style unencumbered by the idealizations of Italian Renaissance Humanism. Of greater relevance is Jacob van Ruisdael, whom Evans cites as an influence. Indeed when looking closely at the artist’s paintings, viewers can often glimpse segments of landscape peaking through, styled in a descriptive mode that is distinctively Flemish.
This text was originally written to accompany Gary Evan’s show ‘spce invdrs’ at Paul Petro Contemporary Art. More info here.
October 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
“It’s nice to make beautiful paintings, but at some point I have to record history”
By Rosemary Heather
Given its aversion to rankings, I will risk offending Canada’s ultra-egalitarian sensibilities by saying Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun is Canada’s best artist. By this I mean, Yuxweluptun is the artist you would learn the most from if you were lucky enough to see his works presented in a career retrospective. Far from poking around in the increasingly dimly-lit corridors of conceptual art practice, Yuxweluptun maps out his own territory in art. Yuxweluptun’s work shows how a long term commitment to craft and the set of problems it presents to the artist will pay in the end a certain dividend of freedom. If an artist’s work is good enough to merit career examination, viewers’ get the chance to understand what it means to be an artist. A Yuxweluptun retrospective, currently only available on his website, would tell you how the best art creates its own context of authority, and that this is the way an artist speaks to his or her audience; speaks as if gifted with language, that is, regardless of the format of expression. In his work, it is clear how the words ‘authority’ and ‘authorship’ are related, and why mastery of an art form can create a position of autonomy for the one who has mastered it —and if words like ‘craft’, ‘self-expression’, and ‘mastery’ have been in recent years have become unfashionable, maybe its time to bring them back again?
When I spoke with him on the phone, Yuxweluptun seemed to have little interest in discussing his work. His focus instead was almost exclusively on the subject matter that informs his paintings: the double bind of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indian, who in Yuxweluptun’s view has been sold out by white man and Indian chief alike. From speaking with Yuxweluptun, I know it would be wrong to call him a ‘Canadian’ artist. His ancestry is a mix of Coast Salish and Okanagan First Nations. It is a heritage embodied in the iconography and political perspective made manifest in his work. Differing from most other parts of Canada, First Nation land claim negotiations in British Columbia are ongoing, to this day. For Yuxweluptun, this means the potential for betrayal of his land and people is ongoing, feelings of connection to the land carrying within them a threat of dispossession. For Yuxweluptun, then, history is not in the past, something understood in retrospect. Rather it is the developing story of his people, their present reality, something, as he says “you wake up to every day.”
That Yuxweluptun sees himself as a History painter is clear. He is a newspaper reporter and polemicist, dramatizing the issues he cares about with the suspicion that some people would prefer he didn’t do this. Few artists in any medium have more successfully vilified ‘the man’, an enemy who in Yuxweluptun’s paintings—whether he is Indian Chief, government official or corporate factotum—wears a suit and a tie. Each of these figures bears a head derived from the artistic iconography of the Pacific North West Coast as a marker of the compromise or worse betrayals he represents: the mask worn is one of perfidy. That he chooses to characterize this iconography as sinister is a measure of not necessarily of Yuxweluptun’s alienation, but of his desire portray alienation of his people. Not quite human, Yuxweluptun’s figures are recognizably a part of the landscape he depicts in his paintings. It is a fully animistic universe, with hills, trees and mountains given life through compositional use of those same iconographic forms. And if his counterparts who inhabit an everyday reality of common sense–that would be us, the audience–fail to see the world as similarly alive and animated by a cosmology of good and evil, this is a mark of our own alienation and complacency, one that will probably doom us in the end.
As a history painter working in the realm of contemporary art, Yuxweluptun keeps company with a select group of artists in Canada, none other that I can think of who make paintings. Rather, Jeff Wall and some of the other Vancouver photoconceptualists come to mind, and maybe the work of Althea Thauberger, an artist who makes video and photo-based installations with the aim of bearing witness to history. I can only speculate that the powerful presence of the natural landscape on the West Coast in Canada makes ‘History painting’ in its contemporary incarnations a concern of artists living there. By comparison, Toronto artists seem preoccupied by the contemporary formats of the still life, suggesting that while West Coast art ensues from a sense of place, Toronto’s artistic imagination is more inward looking and reduces down to the scale of the domestic.
Extending his cosmology beyond the figurative is the body of work Yuxweluptun has made around the compositional figure of the ovoid. Freeing the ovoid from the role it traditionally plays in the art of the region, most recognizably as a pictorial component of the totem pole, Yuxweluptun then lobs the form at the familiar styles of Modernist painting, causing Modernism’s eternal verities to come tumbling down. This tells us not that Modernism had a short eternity so much as it represents a territory that continues to expand. Stacked one on top of the other Yuxweluptun’s ovoids make up a totem pole of Colour Field composition. Gently upending a succession of Modernist genres, the ovoid becomes the ‘Indianized’ format of art history’s re-composition. The playfulness of Yuxweluptun’s approach does not undermine his seriousness of purpose, or the clarity of message his simple method of historical revisionism imparts. Few artists I can think of find such freedom in their facility with a medium. To have this degree artistic control and such a strong of editorial point of view is to be a complete artist. As such, Yuxweluptun sets a standard. The deskilling of art in recent decades has meant a loss in our ability to set criteria for the judging of artworks. Take a look at the paintings of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun if you want to find them again.
This text originally appeared in Hunter and Cook #5
Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s work can be viewed at: www.lawrencepaulyuxweluptun.com/
August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Among the legion of painters devoted to figuration, Michael Lewis maps out a distinct place. In his large-scale works, the dimensions of painting become the constricted space of everyday urban existence: the hotel hallways, office buildings and banquet halls. Windowless rooms contain faceless people, all of them suffering from some nameless torpor. Primarily a painter of interior spaces, Lewis frequently includes potted plants in his pictures to provide a (somewhat cynical) reminder of natural life. When Lewis does paint the outside world, his landscapes look suitably alien.
Sometimes the torpor in Lewis’s work is depicted. In ‘We All Lie Together’ (2007), a group of people lie on the floor. More often, torpor is just an ambience pervading the work. The artist uses a tepid palette of blue and green to serve psychological ends. There is no air in these rooms. Often the paintings are tinged with an undercoat of red, giving them an eerie vitality. The subtle reddish glow suggests a painterly corollary for disquiet.
Lewis used to be a bike courier and he told me this may be the reason why the mise en scene of his imagination always ends up looking like the lobby of an office building. In his paintings, people are busy but it’s hard to say what exactly they are doing. Allegories of office job deadness, bomb shelter anomie or consumer culture conformity all spring to mind.
More to the point perhaps is the claim Lewis makes in his paintings that his medium conveys meaning. His work recalls a quote of Rene Magritte, who described painting as “the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced.”1 In Magritte’s view, a successful painting achieved just that, a kind of poetic coherence, one that “dispenses with any symbolic significance.” Lewis’s work achieves this coherence. His paintings give an impression of profundity; numerous potential readings could result. Our willingness to invest in the work’s reality is connected to the artist’s motives when making it. In the end, however, all readings hit up against the limit of what Lewis’ works actually articulate: the artist’s skill at painting.
1. Frasnay, Daniel. The Artist’s World. “Magritte.” New York: The Viking Press, 1969. pp. 99-107
By Rosemary Heather
July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
A powerful florescent light eliminating all shadow enhanced the dazzling white ground of a painting hanging in the gallery’s window vitrine. Floating against this whiteness were a couple of insouciant washes of oil paint in purple and blue, the lines intersecting in the work’s upper right hand corner to make a 45 degree angle.
That this work has been described as both “Zen-like” and “baroque” gives an indication of the freshness of ground that the artist marks out with this exhibition.
In a media environment that thrives on monotony, shock, and repetition (this is what celebrities are for!) it is exceedingly difficult to create a visual frisson of the new. Much worthy art founders on exactly this rock of seeming overly familiar. Langer’s work in this show has the opposite effect; the artist combines familiar elements to free us from tired habits of looking.